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The Observant Friar Martyrs of Greenwich

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by Michael Hennessy


"They, indeed, both in public disputations and in their sermons, most earnestly maintained that the marriage of Catharine was good and lawful." So wrote Nicholas Sander, Jesuit chronicler of the English Reformation, concerning the Observant Friars of Greenwich. This convent of Franciscans was one of six or seven (records differ) occupied by the Observant branch of the Order across England. Their arrival from the continent, as the more strict and ascetic of the two principal branches of the Franciscan family (the other being the Conventual Franciscans), was ironically (in view of their later fate) the outcome of Henry VII's patronage. Indeed the son was to come to rue the father's piety.

Observant Friars lived a life of great poverty and were devoted to the deeply prayerful and penitential life of their founder, St Francis. Their convent at Greenwich was a favourite pious resort of Henry VIII (as it had been for his father) until the issue of his annulment from Catharine, otherwise known as the "King's Matter", began to obsess him and corrupt his thoughts. Henry had indeed written on more than one occasion to Pope Leo X to extol the virtues of the Observant Order, and of its convent at Greenwich, declaring his deep, devoted affection and admiration for the friars' Christian poverty, sincerity and charity. The convent had for some time provided the confessors for Queen Catharine, and for many others at the royal court. At the time of Henry's adulterous liaison with Anne Boleyn, Queen Catharine's confessor was Friar John Forest from Greenwich, a man eventually to be martyred for his final constancy and loyalty to the Faith. What remains of their correspondence during this difficult time is well worth reading, full of consolation and spiritual wisdom.

At the beginning of 1533, the "King's Matter" still lay at Rome. Rome had wanted to interview Henry personally over the case of the desired annulment, a course of action which Henry categorically refused. Permission for the marriage in the first place had been granted by one of the Pope's predecessors, and the current Pope was unwilling to over-rule that decision, even had it merited the possibility of a different decision being reached (Catharine was the wife of Henry's older brother, Arthur, until the latter's death: Arthur was the heir to the throne and Henry was, as a young man, being groomed for a senior position the Church!). By Spring 1533, all signs were that the final word from Rome was at last imminent — and negative — and Henry was moving to establish himself as final arbiter in matters religious in England. By December of the previous year Anne Boleyn had conceived a child by Henry (the future Elizabeth I — ironically a daughter, as Henry had hoped Anne would provide him with the male heir that Catharine, mother only to one surviving child, Mary, had not). Henry decided to pre-empt any final decision from Rome, by asserting the independence and supremacy of his authority over the Church in England. By early April, categorical news came that Rome's decision was indeed what Henry had feared it would be. Cardinals had concluded by 17 votes to 3 that Henry's marriage to Catharine was lawful and good, and the Pope had ratified that decision. Henry would have the marriage annulled under his own authority.

In the run-up to the "official" annulment and to the bogus marriage, there was much consternation at what was known of the King's plans: and opportunities for decrying or opposing them were not wanting to those who had the courage. The Observant friars, not just of Greenwich but across the country, were in the forefront of spiritual and theological opposition to Henry's clear will in this matter.

Henry attended Holy Mass at the Observants' convent in Greenwich, possibly on Easter Sunday of that year, March 31st, only a few weeks it seems before he settled this business of the annulment through a compliant Cranmer. No doubt he was well aware of the friars' already expressed resistance to his known will. (A lay brother at the convent, Richard Lyst, had been recruited by Cromwell earlier that year to act as an informer: he was later rewarded with a position at Cambridge — no surprises there.) The three individuals foremost in their opposition to the King's annulment at the convent were friars Peto, Elstow and Forest. Friar Peto preached upon this occasion, and evidently the presence of the King encouraged rather than deterred him. Peto's strong denunciation of Henry stunned many in the congregation. He compared Henry to Ahab whose wife Jezebel had slaughtered the true prophets and had them replaced by priests of Baal (recall that at this time Henry was "married" to Anne Boleyn, and she was known to favour some of the continental heresies), and warned Henry that if he continued to behave like Ahab then it might come to pass that after his death dogs would lick his blood as they had licked the blood of that unfortunate king. To those who knew their Old Testament this was strong stuff indeed. Ahab's life had not been a good or happy one, and his death was shameful.

Henry retaliated by ordering one of his placemen to take the pulpit in the same church the following Sunday and to denounce friar Peto and uphold the King's will in the business of the "divorce". One Dr Curwin (later to be rewarded with the archiepiscopal see of Dublin and then — under Elizabeth — the see of Oxford) was the man chosen, and obediently he warmed to Henry's theme. Friar Peto being away (on conventual business: he was the friar-Visitor for the Order in England), Curwin chose to describe the absent friar as a coward who had fled before his, Curwin's, staunch and unanswerable zeal. Henry, attending the sermon in disguise (he, like many contemporary monarchs, had a fancy for such conceits) must have been smiling.

But the voice of friar Elstow rang out from atop the rood loft, and in Peto's place denounced Curwin for placing loyalty and preferment under the King higher than obedience to God's Truth, describing him, Curwin, as "one of the four hundred prophets into whom the spirit of lying is entered, [who] seeketh by adultery to establish succession, betraying the king unto endless perdition, more for [his] own vainglory and hope of promotion than for the discharge of [his] clogged conscience and the king's salvation".

The commotion that followed can perhaps be better imagined than described. Over the uproar, Elstow continued his denunciation, and only ceased when the King, making himself known at the edges of the congregation, commanded him to cease.

The King was in a rage. The following day, probably April 8th, friars Peto and Elstow were brought before the King's council. Again the friars repeated their strong condemnation of Henry's course of action. The Earl of Essex told them that they deserved to be put in a sack and cast into the Thames. Elstow's response deserves recording: "Threaten these things to rich and dainty folk who are clothed in purple, fare delicately, and have their chiefest hope in this world, for we esteem them not, but are joyful that for the discharge of our duties we are driven hence. With thanks to God we know the way to Heaven to be as ready by water as by land, and therefore we care not which way we go."

Astonishingly the two friars were not flung into the Thames or even into prison (Henry was still flexing his proto-totalitarian muscles) and were instead banished from the country. Friar Peto was eventually to be raised in Rome to the purple.

After that, Henry and Cromwell kept a close eye on the friars: elsewhere, two Observants — neither from Greenwich — had become implicated in the process against Elizabeth Barton, the "Holy Maid of Kent" whose supposed prophecies against the King were proving useful to Henry in his move to quell opposition to his new Queen. Elizabeth Barton's reputation for holiness — and for prophecy — had led to her being in contact with many of the chief religious figures in the country, from the Carthusians of London, to the Observant friars, to St John Fisher. Even St Thomas More had corresponded with her.

Authorities differ over the date, but some time in mid-to-late May, Cranmer and his ecclesiastical council, under the King's authority, "officially" annulled the marriage between Henry and Catharine. Anne and Henry had already been secretly married, it is now thought in January of that year; and on 1st June, Whit Sunday, an obviously pregnant Anne was crowned Queen in Westminster Abbey, the populace, by and large, refusing to bare their heads as she passed. (One has again to remark on the irony that this siren was in only a few years herself to be accused by Henry of adultery — after failing to provide him with a son — and lose her head on the block.) To assert further his supremacy in matters religious, Henry chose to have the bastard daughter of Anne baptised in the friars' church at Greenwich on 1st September.

During the latter part of 1533, Henry and his agents were still painfully aware that the public was opposed to his marriage to Anne and that the preaching he was ordering from pulpits across the land, against the Pope and for the King and his newly enunciated out ecclesiastical prerogatives and authority, would take some time to prove effective. Parliament would be more pliant than the public (it is always easier to bribe or intimidate few than many): efforts expended there, and pecuniary favours, would obtain a more reliable result. It was decided that the case against Elizabeth Barton and her treasonous prophecies — and against those implicated with her (in Henry's eyes) — should therefore be prosecuted not by trial and jury but through Parliament by Bill of Attainder.

The Parliament of Spring 1534 also enabled Henry to pass those laws he required to establish firmly his position as Head of the English Church, and to permit an oath setting down that fact, and the fact of the new succession to Elizabeth, Anne's daughter, rather than to Mary, Catharine's daughter, to be tendered to those whose loyalty he needed and those whose loyalty he suspected.

The Observants were not the sort to be frightened into silence. The warden of the Observant convent in Southampton, Friar Pecock, seized the opportunity in preaching against a heretic in late March 1534 (we must not forget that Henry was "even-handed" — even while he burned faithful Catholics for loyalty to Rome he burned heretics for Lutheran or Calvinist beliefs, particularly in the matter of the Holy Eucharist) to raise the matter of those other heretics who denied the Supremacy of the Pope. It was clear that the Observant friars would continue to try and maintain the old order and subvert the new.

Friars Rich and Risby, implicated in the Elizabeth Barton matter, were by now in prison. From admittedly sketchy evidence it appears that Friar Forest was in prison too, although for what reasons is not clear. Evidently he was in fear of his life, and wrote a letter to Queen Catharine enclosing his rosary. On 20th April 1534, Rich and Risby were executed along with Elizabeth Barton. We will come across Friar Forest again later. The persecutions had begun in earnest.

Henry, now clear in his own mind that the Observant friars had no superiors except himself, appointed two ecclesiastical "visitors" (one Dominican, one Augustinian — both, in the depressing manner of the time, later to be rewarded with episcopal seats for their services) to approach every friary and every friar in the Franciscan order as a whole, to tender to them the oath on Anne Boleyn as Queen, and to discern their positions towards the Royal Supremacy. Two fleeing friars, Hugh Payn and Thomas Hayfield, it seems guessing where all this was leading, tried to flee in mufti to the continent but were apprehended in Cardiff. No more is heard of them. In their peregrinations, the visitors found the Observants in particular "dampned stobborne". In London they were, if anything, worse still, and special measures were put in place by Cromwell to deal with them.

In order to sway the truculent Franciscans, Cromwell decided to make clear to them the unreasonableness of their obstinacy. And what better way to do this than by showing how other holy and esteemed religious would take the oath, would acknowledge the Royal Supremacy, without cavil. Cromwell therefore decided that the Carthusians should be approached — since they were, along with the Observants, regarded as the most devout and holy order in the land, and their obedience to the King would sway the Observants into likewise accommodating themselves to the new order. Of course this the Carthusians failed to do where it mattered most, in London. Ironically, the first "official" martyrs of the Henrician period, the Carthusians Ss John Houghton, Augustine Webster, Robert Lawrence, Sebastian Newdigate, William Exmew and Humphrey Middlemore, all to be sent to the scaffold before Ss Thomas More and John Fisher, were victims of Cromwell's machinations against the Observants. The faithful friars obviously took heart from the constancy of their fellow religious.

Sadly not at all Observants proved stubborn. Friar John George of Cambridge (no surprises there) swore the oath and eventually left the Order. His mother was disgusted. He evidently planned to visit her, and she writes: "And you send me word that you will come over to me this summer, but come not unless you change your condition or you shall be as welcome as "water into the sheep". You shall have God's curse and mine and never a penny. I had rather give all my goods to the poor than keep you in heresy."

When his attempts to bring the Carthusians into the Royal fold encountered extreme difficulties, Cromwell decided on a different tactic. He would get the two key Observant friaries of Greenwich and Richmond to each depute a small group of friars to consider the matter of submitting to the Royal will — a small deputation was more easily intimidated, more easily swayed. The friars of Richmond consented to this device but those of Greenwich refused. Cromwell was forced to have each friar interviewed and indeed interrogated separately, and to a man they persevered in their obstinacy.

At this point, somewhere on the cusp between the end of July and the beginning of August 1534, the Kings' and Cromwell's patience snapped. Long procedures gave time for more preaching against the King and more encouragement to others who favoured the Old Order over the New. All seven friaries (or six, records vary!) across the country were closed and the majority of the friars thrown into prison. This was certainly the case in and around London: further north, a greater proportion of friars seem to have been "facilitated" to leave the country for Ireland or the continent. But even in the north, many were thrown into monastic cells (where there was often a far harsher regime than obtained in the provincial gaols).

Matters now become dark. Without Maurice Chauncey's account of the Carthusian martyrs who died horribly in prison in 1537, an account which gives names and numbers and dates of death, we would be as much in the dark about the hidden Carthusian martyrs as we are about the Observants. The Observants lacked a detailed and thorough chronicler like Chauncey, and what we have are slight fragments of the story (courtesy of Thomas Bourchier, an Observant of the restored Order under Queen Mary) and no more.

A good number of the Observants appear to have died in prison. Records reveal up to 220 languishing in prison — we know one record of 134, principally in London cells, of whom 32 certainly died. However, the deaths are by and large recorded for the year 1537. It seems that at first the prison regime suffered by the Franciscans was gentler than it was to become. It is interesting to note that most of the Observants who died in prison died at the same time as the imprisoned Carthusian martyrs — the summer of 1537 was evidently the time of silent and hidden death, when the decision was taken to extinguish behind closed doors and by covert means those who still opposed the king. We know nothing of the conditions in which the Observants were kept, but it would not be unreasonable to infer that at least some — perhaps the worst offenders, those friars from Greenwich — were in the end starved and left to rot in their own filth like the Carthusians, only a few miles away. Between 30 and 50 friars died in London cells. What exactly happened further north to those abandoned in monastic cells is simply not known. Possibly many there were likewise starved to death, and are hidden and unknown martyrs, like most of those who died in London. No chronicler remembered them — they died in darkness, a darkness that has all but occluded any knowledge of their glory.

Three of these Observant friars were declared venerable by Pope Leo XIII, the only three perhaps whose names we can now discover — Anthony Brookby, Thomas Belchiam and Thomas Cort. The first was tortured upon the rack for a sermon directed against the King's actions and mode of living. He refused to retract what he had said, but was rendered so helpless by his torments that he was thrown out of prison, presumably to die in the gutter. A pious women took him in and cared for him, until, a few weeks later, he was strangled to death with his girdle. A glorious death for a son of St Francis! The second is known to have preached against Henry and to have been one of those thrown into prison to linger there and die. Almost nothing appears to be known of the third, who also presumably died in prison.

We must end with John Forest, beatified by Pope Leo XIII in 1886. Perhaps after all his brethren had been murdered or exiled he was freed. This may have been because he had finally given into Henry and taken various anti-Catholic oaths. It is unclear, except that from his correspondence it appears there were things he did after he had been imprisoned that he later regretted. Finally however, he found the gallows. He decided to refuse that accommodation with error that he had perhaps made during his earlier imprisonment, and on 22nd May 1538 he was finally burned at the stake, roasted over the image of Derfel Gadarn, St Derfel the Strong, brought from Llanderfel, near St Asaph in Wales, and kindled to be his dying flame. Before his death he soundly berated Latimer for having been bought off by preferment and position: one schismatic chronicler of the time says he abused Latimer "most rudely", which is cheering. He was Queen Catharine's man to the end.

Thus passed the English province of the Order of Observant Friars.

Blessed John Forest, Venerable friars Belchiam, Brookby, and Cort, and the unknown holy martyrs of Greenwich, pray for us!


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